The Kentucky Derby (G1) – When Closers Finally Get a Fast Pace

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By Dean Arnold

It is often said that early speed is the universal bias of horse racing. But when divisional leaders line up for a championship-level event, closers often benefit when a large field of racing’s best square off and the Kentucky Derby (G1) is the annual prime example of that.

Horses can win using a variety of tactics and running styles. Yet horses devoid of early speed must contend with additional traffic, wide trips, and are often as dependent on early runners decelerating as they are on their own closing kicks. The best scenario for closers is to relax far behind a contested early pace and save their energy while the rest of the field battles each other into exhaustion. Closers then navigate through tiring horses in an attempt to get to the head of the pack before they run out of real estate.

When a complete pace meltdown occurs, closers often benefit, getting close to the lead before even being asked to run. Unfortunately, this ideal stretch-running trip rarely unfolds. Most horses lucky enough to string together extended winning streaks are not closers. Whether it’s short or long, on turf or dirt, you will find few closers sporting high win percentages. Too much both literally and figuratively stands in their way.

It can be tricky to predict when closers will finally get a wicked pace that causes the early runners to melt down and sets up the early trailers to run by the field. The toughest challenge in playing closers is being able to predict a pace where something’s got to give. Multiple frontrunners in a field will not guarantee a killer pace. Too often, handicappers are only able to spot obvious pace showdowns amongst competing speedballs that any and all astute handicappers will anticipate. The increased likelihood of a late runner getting to the winner’s circle will be offset by the additional play on the closers.

Even when a track bias seems to inhibit speed horses, it is difficult to predict which jockeys will choose to reserve their horses early. Playing the closers when the track is deemed tiring is bound to lead to subjective judgments or attempts to divine the rider’s intentions. A track bias against frontrunners does not automatically put habitual closers in the winner’s circle.

One scenario where a suicidal pace is common, however, is when divisional leaders line up for a championship-level event such as the Kentucky Derby (G1). A full field (18 this year) break from the gate and undoubtedly one or more horses will gun for position, either to gain a clear trip or to simply take the field as fast as it can for as long as it can, making it likely that the conditions will be ripe for a pace collapse.

Races like the Kentucky Derby (G1) are rarely run in a slow pace fashion that is kind to frontrunners. Wire-to-wire winners have been few and far between in the last 35 ‘Run for the Roses’ and not once was the win achieved by setting a slow pace. Spend A Buck (1985) led the Kentucky Derby through a half-mile in 45 4/5. Winning Colors (1988) in 46 4/5. Go For Gin (1994) in 47 1/5. War Emblem (2002) in 47 flat. All of these horses turned in exceptional performances, setting an above average early pace before turning away all challengers. But in all the other Derbies since 1985, a horse has been able to win from off the pace. On a typical race day, one could expect to find numerous races where the horse with the best early speed is likely to win. Yet in these big money events, the race is not necessarily to the swift. Instead, the horse that can overcome all obstacles regardless of pace, bias or traffic tends to prevail. So when prestige and big money are on the line, the closers seem to have their day in the sun. That’s why I like Honor A.P. in this year’s Kentucky Derby (G1).

Requirements To Bet Closers: 

  • In typical every day races, it is hard to consistently predict a contested pace scenario that will benefit closers.
  • Don’t be discouraged by previous trouble lines in the closers past performances.  
  • Prestigious championship races with overflow fields are among the most likely scenarios to favor stretch runners, and the Kentucky Derby (G1) is the prime example of this set-up.
  • The closers do not necessarily need to be the ‘best’ horse to beat tiring speedsters. 

Be sure to check out Dean Arnold's handicapping book, A Bettor Way, on sale now through Amazon.

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